China Dips a Toe Into Middle East Peace
President Xi Jinping with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, in Beijing.
By EDWARD WONG and CHRIS BUCKLEY
Published: May 8, 2013
BEIJING — China took a modest step into Middle East diplomacy this week, hosting back-to-back visits from Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
But this was not exactly Camp David by the Forbidden City.
The fact that the visits were timed so the two leaders would not meet — Mr. Abbas left Beijing on Tuesday, and Mr. Netanyahu arrived Wednesday after a swing through Shanghai — signaled that neither they nor Xi Jinping, China’s leader, were ready for actual talks. But Mr. Xi did present a four-point peace proposal to Mr. Abbas, which, though it did not contain any breakthrough ideas, hinted that China had given some thought to playing a more energetic, if very limited, role as mediator in one of the world’s most protracted conflicts.
“As China’s economy, national strength and international status grow, Arab countries are looking more to China,” said Guo Xiangang, a vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing who follows China’s relations with Middle Eastern nations. “The expectations they place on China are growing.”
In their meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Li Keqiang of China told Mr. Netanyahu that “the Palestinian issue is a core issue affecting the peace and stability of the Middle East, and a peaceful solution reached through dialogue and negotiations is the only effective answer,” according to Xinhua, the state news agency.
“As a friend of both Israel and the Palestinians, China has always maintained an objective and fair stance, and is willing to strive together with all sides to actively advance the Middle East peace process,” Mr. Li said.
China has been careful to take a clear and consistent but not strong stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. China has growing trade ties with Israel — the value of their trade relationship has been estimated in official Chinese news reports to be nearly $10 billion a year — but it supports Palestinian statehood and relies on crude oil imports from Iran and Arab nations to meet its energy needs. About half of China’s oil imports come from the Middle East, and that dependency is expected to deepen.
The core of the four-point plan that Mr. Xi presented to Mr. Abbas was the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, based on the 1967 boundaries and with East Jerusalem as its capital. The plan was a formal version of China’s traditional stand on the conflict.
At the United Nations, where China sits on the Security Council, Mr. Abbas has pushed for greater status for the Palestinians, which has drawn economic reprisals from Israel and has led to a reduction in donations from foreign supporters. On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said at a news conference that Israel had to halt the building of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, stop violence against innocent civilians and end the blockade against the Gaza Strip to clear the way for peace talks.
But China’s measured stand on the conflict was evident in some of Mr. Xi’s comments during his meeting with Mr. Abbas. “Israel’s right to exist and its reasonable security concerns should be fully respected,” Mr. Xi said, according to a report by Xinhua.
China’s position is also complicated by its strong support of Iran and various Arab nations. Iran, with its nuclear program, is one of the greatest security concerns for both Israel and the United States. China has sided with Russia to try to impede Western proposals for greater actions against Syria, which is a close ally of Iran and has been using bloody means to try to stamp out a rebellion.
Syria accused Israel of carrying out airstrikes last weekend on military targets outside Damascus. Ms. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, was asked at the news conference Tuesday whether Chinese leaders would raise the airstrikes with Mr. Netanyahu. “China and Israel are maintaining communication,” she said.
Despite the spotlight on the visits by Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, China is likely to remain a muted political actor in the Middle East, analysts of the region said. Beijing sees little to gain from being entangled in distant and often seemingly intractable disputes, said Yin Gang, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
“China is a long way from the Middle East, and it can’t even reach a good solution to its own regional problems: North Korea, the Diaoyu Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam,” Mr. Yin said. “Even if China becomes a superpower with an economy on par with the United States’, it still won’t play a major role in the Middle East.”
China’s ideological flexibility on the Middle East and North Africa was evident during the recent Libyan revolution. China refused to support Western-led military support of the rebels fighting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, then intensified its relations with the rebels when it became obvious that Colonel Qaddafi’s government would fall.
Mr. Netanyahu’s talks with Chinese leaders are likely to be dominated by bilateral issues, including economic ties. The positions of both sides on Iran’s nuclear program and on the bloodshed in Syria are too clear and entrenched to expect any shifts from the talks, said Mr. Yin and Mr. Guo, the two scholars.
“Israel’s biggest concern is still Iran; it worries that Iran will develop nuclear weapons technology, and it’s looking for the international community to intensify economic sanctions and other pressure,” Mr. Guo said. “But China’s position is clear: it opposes military strikes against Iran and maintains that sanctions need to be measured.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s trip to China is the first by an Israeli leader since 2007. In Shanghai, he visited a memorial to refugees who fled to the city from the Holocaust in Europe. Xinhua reported that in his meeting Tuesday with Yang Xiong, the mayor of Shanghai, Mr. Netanyahu said: “Israel-China cooperation in the fields of science, technology and manufacturing can result in a perfect partnership. The difference between cooperating with China and other countries is that the effect can be more than tenfold, rather than just one- or twofold.”
Edward Wong reported from Beijing, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Patrick Zuo and Sue-Lin Wong contributed research from Beijing.